Calming anxiety with food

by Marilyn Walls, M.S.

This article was originally published in December 2015

Calming anxiety with food

Everyone feels anxious at one time or another. From feelings of worry and edginess to full-blown panic, anxiety has staked a claim on modern lives. In fact, anxiety may be the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting even children.

A plethora of concerns can instigate apprehension on any given day of the year, but the holidays have their own gifts for the anxious. For people who tend to expect the worst, being stuck in traffic on the way to a party, making dinner for visiting family, fear of flying, or the extra expenses of the season can cause excessive stress. Then the cycle elongates: inner turmoil, irritability, trouble concentrating, sleep problems, perhaps even high blood pressure.

Anxiety can be a short-term state or a long-term trait. No magic bullet exists at this time to fix either generalized or specific anxiety. Talk therapy, meditation, medications and exercise all have soothed anxious souls.

Nutrition currently is being examined as a piece of the puzzle. Both animal and human studies have verified that being well-nourished helps decrease anxiety and fortifies the ability to deal with stressful situations. A simplistic look at the brain and its nutritional needs may illuminate this.

Brain food

Although scientists advise this is the very beginning of understanding how the brain works, they now think that neural circuitry involving the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala and the hippocampus underlie anxiety. All are neighbors in the brain and communicate in response to stress, a kind of emotional Bermuda Triangle.

The hippocampus makes memories, especially about events and facts. A memory alone might trigger anxiety. The hippocampus sends its information to other regions of the brain, including the amygdala, the alarmist of the brain.

It doesn’t require a brain surgeon to see the connection between stress, anxiety and brain function. Stress creates a loop in the brain, a circle arising from poor sleep, poor nutrition or emotional distress. This leads to the brain’s decreased ability to concentrate. The circle continues with worry, as focus and learning take a hit. Our cortisol rises, and the hippocampus loses neurons and volume. Meanwhile the amygdala has the whole body on high alert, and the nucleus accumbens, the brains’s addict, is looking for comfort in sugar, coffee or some other favored drug.

Importantly, new neurons are created in the hippocampus. We need those new neurons for a healthy brain and to stop the merry-go-round of fear.

Studies promote the role of nutrition in hippocampal strength. All omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain, but DHA especially has been confirmed to offer new neurons to fight against the stress cycle.

One study of post-traumatic stress disorder subjects found that omega-3s, particularly DHA, worked in the clearance of fear memories from the hippocampus. The study concluded that “modulating adult hippocampal neurogenesis by diet could emerge as a possible mechanism by which nutrition impacts mental health.” Higher levels of omega-3s were linked to 2.7 percent larger volume of the hippocampus. As neurons die, the brain shrinks. For the brain, size does matter.

The antioxidants in blueberries and other purple or blue plants protect the hippocampus and stimulate new cell creation. These nutrients — also in cranberries, black beans and grapes — pass through the blood-brain barrier to optimize brain function. They defend against neuron excitotoxicity, a hyper-responsiveness that’s a piece of the anxiety puzzle.

People with generalized anxiety disorder have been found to have lower levels of magnesium. Magnesium, a calming mineral deficient in most diets, has the ability to “suppress hippocampal kindling” according to a study, and may be a guard against stress hormones entering the brain. The amygdala signals the entire body, creating tight muscles, increased sensitivities and insomnia. Magnesium can relax these symptoms.

Most zinc in the body lives in the brain. Brain health is increased with zinc. Zinc even has been used by psychiatrists in the treatment of depression along with medications. Add these foods to contribute zinc to your diet: beef (especially grass-fed), pumpkin seeds, cashews and lentils.

As always, looking at the diet as a whole adds clarity. Excessive intake of bad fats and sugar (possibly prompted by the nucleus accumbens) may negatively impact the hippocampus. Consequently, rats fed junk food had weakened hippocampal function, while antioxidants lowered oxidative stress in the brain. Reducing calories also increased the hippocampal health of mice. A simple conclusion follows: choose nutrient-rich, whole foods rather than calorie-dense, processed foods.

The gut: the second brain

Ancient cultures believed that the center of the self was located in the belly. The Chinese word for belly means “mind place,” and the Japanese word for belly, “hara,” represents the seat of understanding. Those concepts were early articulations of the gut-brain axis. A recent study put it this way: gut inflammation can increase anxiety.

Enter the microbiome. Inflammation can be responsible for mood disorders and good bacteria can fight inflammation and infection. Then think about neurotransmitters. These chemicals — with such names as GABA, serotonin and norepinephrine — carry messages that affect everything that goes on in the body, from muscles to mood. Neurotransmitters tell the brain what to do.

While a variety of neurotransmitters are produced in the gut, a whopping 80-90 percent of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, is made in the gut by microflora. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that antidepressant meds seek to corral because it fosters a sense of well-being. Serotonin and GABA are important in defending against the excitatory responses of the brain under stress. People unable to handle stress often are low in GABA.

The synthesis of GABA is complicated. B6 is needed, but coffee impedes GABA. Antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other complex carbohydrates are important for making GABA.

GABA supplements are available, but they do not cross the blood-brain barrier. For that reason, L-theanine may be an alternative: it is a relaxant, extracted from green tea.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that converts into 5-HTP, which becomes serotonin. Contrary to popular belief, tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid in food. (No, it’s not true that turkey induces sleep with a load of tryptophan.)

To turn tryptophan into serotonin requires B6 and niacin working with complex carbohydrates, other amino acids and enzymes. Vitamin C and D play a role, too. Again, nutrients work best in combination in a whole foods diet. This pathway can be enhanced by experiencing early morning light outside. Some building blocks for serotonin include bananas, beets, brown rice, fennel, fish, milk and legumes.

5-HTP, the intermediary step between tryptophan and serotonin, is available as a supplement and sometimes is taken to aid sleeping. Perhaps future studies of the friendly microorganisms in the gut will show how brain levels of 5-HTP and GABA are augmented with vitamin supplements. Already scientists know that the good microflora in the gastrointestinal tract communicate with the brain using neurotransmitters.

Like the science of emotion, microbiome research also is in its infancy. Expect new discoveries in both fields of study, but consider what currently is acknowledged. Anxiety disorders are common in patients with disturbed gut flora. In a 2011 human study, 30 days of the probiotics lactobacillus heleveticus and bifidobacteria longum netted less anxiety. Increasing the diversity of good bacteria also has been shown to lessen anxiety-like behavior.

A holistic approach

The meshing of anxiety causes, symptoms and solutions creates complicated netting sometimes difficult to unravel. Herbs and essential oils offer symptom relief, while talk therapy may quiet an aroused amygdala. Healthy food choices of fruits, vegetables and fish can assist the hippocampus. Caring for this condition may need a holistic approach including a variety of treatments.

Stress cannot be eliminated from life and some unease may be impetus for the completion of a task or a good performance. The existential philosophers believed that anxiety needs to be accepted as a part of the human condition. Perhaps a well-nourished body and brain support the ability to handle the triggers that set off anxiety.


These nutrients help fight stress and anxiety. You can find them in supplement form at PCC, but foods can be sources or cofactors for supplying them to the body.

Omega-3s: salmon, sardines, cod, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, Brussels sprouts

Magnesium: dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains

Zinc: beef (especially grass-fed), pumpkin seeds, cashews, lentils

Vitamin C: bell peppers, strawberries, papaya, broccoli

Vitamin D: fish, salmon, tuna, mushrooms, fortified foods

GABA building blocks: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other complex carbohydrates

Seratonin building blocks: bananas, beets, brown rice, fennel, fish, milk, legumes

Tryptophan: seeds, almonds, eggs, dairy, chocolate

L-theanine: green tea

Probiotics: yogurt, kefir, kraut, kimchi, kombucha

B6: whole grains, beans, dark leafy greens, poultry, pistachios

Niacin: tuna, pork, nuts, beef, mushrooms, avocado

Marilyn Walls, M.S., got her master’s in nutrition at Bastyr University and serves as a PCC nutrition educator.

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